The Frontal Cortex

Ferris Bueller

In the LA Times, Megan Daum has an interesting reflection on the late comedy director John Hughes, and his eccentric cinematic representations of adolescence:

If the brooding, solitary Andie played by Ringwald in “Pretty in Pink” were in high school in 2009, it’s hard to imagine she wouldn’t be a candidate for anti-depression therapy. Likewise, if “The Breakfast Club,” which is about five teens serving time in Saturday detention, took place in a post-Prozac, post-Columbine America, Ally Sheedy’s mostly mute, kleptomaniac misfit would have undoubtedly been medicated, and Anthony Michael Hall’s character would have received a lot more than detention for bringing a flare gun to school. As for Ferris Bueller, the kid obviously needed Ritalin.

I’m not suggesting that any of us were better off when legitimate disorders went unrecognized and untreated. But in a culture in which diagnoses sometimes seem to get handed out like conservation-awareness fliers in front of the supermarket, it’s worth asking ourselves if old-fashioned eccentricity — of the teen or adult variety — can too easily be supplanted by the ease of assigning a code from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Hughes, who left the movie business in the early 1990s because he feared the impact Hollywood would have on his children, should be remembered not just for the way he appreciated weirdness but for the way he normalized it — not with pills but with paisley.

Vaughan, over at MindHacks, add his own commentary:

The monologue that bookmarks The Breakfast Club, with the line “You see us as you want to see us – in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions”, succinctly captures how society’s view of youth changes and yet always stays the same.

For the current younger generation, the simplest terms are mostly taken from psychiatry. This will eventually change and our recurrent anxieties about the young will largely be expressed in the next most convenient definition.

One larger problem with relying on vague psychiatric diagnoses, such as “difficulty paying attention,” is that they’re subject to the classic slippery slope. Imagine a classroom with five disorderly kids, who are then given a drug for ADD. Let’s also imagine that this drug is extremely effective, and transforms the unruly students into well-behaved pupils. (In real life, of course, Ritalin is no miracle cure.) This raises the obvious problem: what about the next five most disorderly kids? Do they now have difficulties regulating attention? Compared to whom? Define unruly.

The danger isn’t just that we’ve medicalized Ferris Bueller. It’s that we’ve turned a large percentage of children into psychiatric patients without a clear understanding of where to draw the line. (And I think this will become an even bigger problem once we develop effective interventions, which can shift the bell curve of behavior and make Ritalin look like a crude sledgehammer.) But then this is a recurring problem with the brain, which rarely obeys our neat schematics and categories. Human behavior is a smear, a spectrum; it rarely gives us simple answers to yes or no questions. This is what great art, and even mediocre Hollywood comedies, can remind us.

Comments

  1. #1 Sandip
    August 25, 2009

    Human beings are social animals, which means that an optimal amount of human interfacing is necessary for the limbic system to function like we ‘like’.

  2. #2 Julie Simon Lakehomer
    August 28, 2009

    Can’t believe there are so few comments on this post. You raise a truly important issue. Already the entire male sex in elementary classrooms is in danger of being classified “unable to pay quiet, sustained attention,” meaning “not like girls.” One reason may be that the vast majority of elementary teachers are women. Shades of “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

  3. #3 jess
    August 28, 2009

    It’s too convenient (or mean?) to blame female teachers, to me. After all, they don’t prescribe children; doctors do. They don’t set education policy (No Child Left Behind), they follow it.

    Whenever I read about the over-prescribing of children, I think of Virginia Woolf – she clearly would have been on Prozac, and would never have written a word of what she did write, which was possible and painful and emanated from the twist and depth of her psyche, if she lived now or grew up now. So many artists, so many who were creative or insightful or full of genius in other pursuits, would never have been able to reach the luminous heights they did because of the dulling effect of chemical correction. Imagine the shadows that would have cast on all of us.

  4. #4 Phillip Mummah B120
    August 30, 2009

    Having ADD myself i have seen the problem where kids whom do not need it take ADD medicine. I was diagnosed at a young age and my ADD is legitimate. However i do not use it as an excuse like most ADD patients i have seen. I know i have a disorder and it does make it a lot harder for me to listen to lectures or things that i am not interested in. My mind wonders and jumps from thought to though with a trail of dots connecting my thoughts that travels as fast as my neurons will allow. I know i have to work harder to pay attention but some people just say of yea i have ADD so i can’t do this. They use ADD and the very mild form that they have to get out of doing things. It has come to the point where some people don’t even believe it is real. Well i can assure you that it is real and that it is not disputable. Everyone has ADD like my ADD and ADHD but everyone only has it to a certain degree. Many kids that do not need medicine are given medicine these days they must learn the discipline of how to stay focused and with out it they will never learn how to delay gratification. I could not agree more that once you fix the worst five it starts a chain reaction but there needs to be a strong cut off point where an actual disorder that makes it a lot harder to learn is separated from just extra energy/immaturity.

  5. #5 Jonathan
    September 5, 2009

    Ferris Bueller was a classic sociopath.

  6. #6 kalb120
    September 7, 2009

    This makes a good point. When I was about 11 in fifth grade I had trouble paying attention in school. My mother took me to the doctor once and told him that I wasn’t doing well in school and with no tests done or further analysis, we walked out with a full prescription of Ritalin. I absolutely hated being on it. I wouldn’t eat, I wouldn’t socialize and I just didn’t interact like normal kids; my grades even stayed neutral. There was a constant anxiety about me, I couldn’t stop shaking and I would get horrible headaches about 3 times a day. When i went to the doctors about these symptoms, they didn’t run any tests or recommend any treatment, all they did was prescribe me for a different ADD medication, such as Adderall and Concerta, and I was out of the office in 15 minutes. Since then I’ve tried 3 different types of ADD medication in all different size doses and have had the same effects. Now a senior in high school, I haven’t been consistent on ADD medication for 4 years, I just stopped taking it when my mother would fill prescriptions, and my grades are improving drastically each year and I’m interacting like a normal teenager. The headaches subsided and the shaking anxiety ceased. I like to think that I never needed medication, I never had ADD, I was just another 11 year old kid that didn’t like school.

  7. #7 LCB-B120
    September 7, 2009

    I think that kids are too young to be taking medications that are so potent. The scary thing about this is the fact that most kids really do not even need the medication. Most problems that kids face today can be solved with communication.(I should know, i’m a teenager myself) I have family memmbers and friends who have been prescribed to various medications for ADD,ADHD,Depression etc. Every one of them have had problems with side effects and don’t like how they feel after taking it. Why take a medication that makes you feel worse? There are so many other ways to make yourself feel better than to spend money on something that supposedly “helps”. The best way to help with concentration is to loose distraction. The best way to loose depression is to do things and be with people that make you happy. No drugs required.

  8. #8 SMBB120
    September 8, 2009

    What is the true definition of “normal”?
    Some people view others as being normal because they are up to the ‘teenage standards’, others view people as “normal” when they have many friends, and keep their grades up in school. Just think about the characters that Lehrer mentioned while describing The Breakfast Club; one was popular, another was quiet, and one was the typical trouble maker. Back then there was no true definition of what the word normal meant. It seems as though if you are not qualified in the “normal” category in this generation that a diagnosis of a certain disorder is to take place. Some disorders diagnosed include depression, ADD, ADHD, and social anxiety’s. I feel as though many children or teenagers are prescribed for certain medications that they actually do not need to be taking. If a child is acting up in class the first instinct a parent might have is to take them to the doctor to have a check-up, this child might not even need to be on medication. This problem could easily be solved with communication and social interaction. I do not believe that many children or teenagers need to be on medication to solve their “problems”, i feel as though they are just put on them because they are excuses for not being up to the normal standards. I also do not believe this is right but as the years continue and our technology of medicine becomes more and more developed, it will continue to happen unfortunately.

  9. #9 SMBB120
    September 8, 2009

    What is the true definition of “normal”?
    Some people view others as being normal because they are up to the ‘teenage standards’, others view people as “normal” when they have many friends, and keep their grades up in school. Just think about the characters that Lehrer mentioned while describing The Breakfast Club; one was popular, another was quiet, and one was the typical trouble maker. Back then there was no true definition of what the word normal meant. It seems as though if you are not qualified in the “normal” category in this generation that a diagnosis of a certain disorder is to take place. Some disorders diagnosed include depression, ADD, ADHD, and social anxiety’s. I feel as though many children or teenagers are prescribed for certain medications that they actually do not need to be taking. If a child is acting up in class the first instinct a parent might have is to take them to the doctor to have a check-up, this child might not even need to be on medication. This problem could easily be solved with communication and social interaction. I do not believe that many children or teenagers need to be on medication to solve their “problems”, i feel as though they are just put on them because they are excuses for not being up to the normal standards. I also do not believe this is right but as the years continue and our technology of medicine becomes more and more developed, it will continue to happen unfortunately.

  10. #10 Dan Graney B120
    September 8, 2009

    I think that this type of over medication in children is a major problem. I also believe it says a big thing about our society. In the modern age we’re becoming used to instant results. From our wireless devices to our on-demand television services, I believe we are becoming increasingly less patient, and also losing our value for process.

    Coordinating perfectly with this, is the fact that instead of imposing ideals and responsible discipline on children, we medicate them. A pill provides a quick fix for almost anything that’s wrong with your kid. Unfortunately, this quick fix doesn’t actually fix most issues.

    Throwing medication at children doesn’t make them better if there isn’t anything to medicate.

  11. #11 STO.B120
    September 9, 2009

    Attention Deficit Disorder, or at least where our society has taken it, is no longer a specified set of individuals who have difficulty paying attention. It seems that everyone nowadays has some form of “ADD” or make the excuse that they do. Just because some things don’t interest you and you cannot pay attention doesn’t mean you have a disorder. For example, when I was younger, my second grade teacher believed that I had ADD and told my parents to get it checked out. As it turns out, the doctors found nothing wrong with me; I just didn’t seem to pay attention during class.

    If every kid that can’t sit still or can’t pay attention was prescribed a medication for a disease, there would no longer be diversity amongst students. Like the article says, every child is becoming a psychiatric patient, and to me, it seems a bit overkill.

    Who’s to say that if doctors keep prescribing medicines like Ritalin to kids who have this “disorder”, there wouldn’t be an addiction problem later down the line? The longer a medication is used, the more dependent on it the body becomes. And, by prescribing many a child with an ADD medication at a young age, the doctors are only making it harder for them to go without it later in life. Once on the medicine for years of one’s childhood, it would be extremely hard to stop taking it. Doctors need to realize this before it’s too late, before every last child in America becomes addicted to a medicine that’s not necessarily needed.